2020’s legislative sessions gave all major players a reality check. Here’s a look at where they stood after Round 2.
One thing I love about government and politics is their ability to surprise, even in the face of sometimes mind-numbing banality. After the last election cycle, everyone from the high-and-mighty to the up-and-coming predicted bloody, partisan fights between the Democratic governor and his GOP legislative adversaries. By and large, that didn’t happen, though they certainly had their differences. That was a welcome surprise.
This year brought an even bigger — but most unwelcome — surprise in the form of COVID-19, which took the life of one freshmen lawmaker and sidelined several others, at least temporarily. Lord knows how many staff and lobbyists also contracted the novel coronavirus.
Politically, the pandemic upended the annual session, compressing its normal 85 calendar days into less than 30. That required an immediate return on June 1 for a 30-day special session to finish what lawmakers didn’t do in the annual session.
For his part, Gov. John Bel Edwards had to divide his attention between legislative goings-on and his near-daily briefings on COVID-19. Politically, this hurt him almost as much as losing a passel of legislative allies to term limits and electoral defeat in the last election cycle. To his credit, Edwards earned high marks for his handling of the pandemic (including words of praise from President Trump).
He was not so fortunate in his dealings with the majority-Republican Legislature, but that’s not his fault. He played a bad hand as best he could, given the GOP’s large majority in each legislative chamber. He negotiated an uneasy truce when possible and took his lumps when unavoidable.
Looking back, the virus appears to have given everyone at the Capitol a political reality check. The governor, GOP leaders, business interests, trial lawyers and others recognized that progress happens incrementally, and only when folks work together, which means compromising. That’s a good thing, but it’s a shame that it took a pandemic to teach so many of our politicians that relationships matter. What’s most interesting — and refreshing — is how many freshmen legislators knew that going in.
In many ways, the two back-to-back sessions functioned as one, but each produced its own set of victors and vanquished. Which brings us to my latest incarnation of Da Winnas and Da Loozas. In some cases, my diagnosis is not much more than a best guess, which seems appropriate in The Year of COVID. Nothing is normal, so let’s just get on with it, starting with …
1. LABI — The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) didn’t get everything it wanted from the tort reform bill that lawmakers passed (and Edwards has pledged to sign), but the state’s leading business lobby made more progress in the last 30 days than it had in the previous 20 years. The walls of the trial lawyers’ once-impregnable political fortress have now been breached. This is a significant step towards the business community’s longtime goal of overhauling Louisiana’s civil litigation landscape. The real credit for passage of the Speaker's bill goes to Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, who did the research and heavy lifting and kept both sides honest — and at the table — throughout the difficult process. In addition, the governor signed a LABI-backed bill, passed during the annual session, to shift $300 million in federal aid to small businesses (taking it away from local governments). That gubernatorial signature came during the special session, so it counts as another business win. On other fronts, lawmakers suspended a portion of the corporate franchise tax on small businesses for one year, allowed for restaurants and retailers to benefit from Enterprise Zone and Quality Jobs tax credits, and gave a host of businesses immunity from civil liability related to COVID-19. LABI gorged itself on victories in the annual session, then came back for seconds in Round 2.
2. GOP Legislative Leaders — For as long as anyone can remember, the House and Senate sparred annually over budgets and other important matters. That has changed. The political simpatico between Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Senate President Page Cortez allowed them to coordinate very closely throughout the legislative process, giving them significantly more leverage with the governor. The benefits were more than mere politics. Lawmakers for the first time in memory passed a Capital Outlay (construction) budget that did not over-commit the state’s limited cash and bonding capacity. In years past, over-budgeting the construction bill strengthened the hand of governors, who could pick and choose which projects proceeded. This year, Edwards signed the bill as is, without any line-item vetoes. Legislators also called themselves into the just-ended special session for only the second time in memory. Typically, governors call special sessions — and set the agendas. This time the GOP leadership (with the help of business allies) called the shots. To their credit, Cortez and Schexnayder also put the kibosh on off-the-rails ideas (which came from far-right GOP lawmakers) like overturning Edwards’ emergency COVID-19 declaration.
3. The New Young Turks — As a class, first-term lawmakers became serious players almost immediately. After helping elect House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, they came back to a truncated annual session and made big differences in some big decisions — from tort reform to budgeting to bills dealing with police abuse. No freshman class of legislators has shown such promise and purpose since the “Young Turks” (a group of reform-minded House freshmen) flexed their muscle in the 1970s. The local standouts include Democratic Rep. Mandie Landry of New Orleans, who was one of the strongest voices of opposition on tort reform, and GOP Rep. Richard Nelson of Mandeville, who passed a strong tort reform bill out of the House with significant bipartisan support — after crossing the aisle in committee to vote with the Black Caucus in favor of a bill eliminating qualified immunity for abusive cops. This freshmen class cares more about fixing things than scoring political points. Keep your eyes on them.
4. Treasurer John Schroder — Lawmakers exempted Schroder from critical state procurement rules governing how he can disburse a $300 million pot of federal COVID relief money to small businesses. The money was carved out of $811 million that Edwards wanted to send exclusively to local governments. Schroder estimates that some 450,000 small business owners — about 64,000 of them minorities, women or veterans — could get grants up to $15,000 each. While the exemption gives the treasurer flexibility to ramp up quickly, it’s also a potential trap if the program hits other bureaucratic snags — or if questions arise later about how any of the money gets spent.
5. K-12 Schools & Colleges — Schools, school boards and colleges will be shielded from civil liability in COVID-19 cases. Rep. Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Springs, previously served on his parish school board and worked closely with school boards and teacher unions in drafting the bill. Ultimately, the teachers opposed the bill, but he got it passed without them.
6. The Gambling Industry — Louisiana’s gambling industry got the largest cut of the tax-break pot — $11 million out of an estimated $25 million. The breaks are expected to grow annually.
7. Small and Medium-Sized Businesses — They have taken the brunt of COVID-19’s economic impact, prompting lawmakers to expand and extend business incentive programs. The incentives include Historic Tax Credits, Angel Investor Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, Enterprise Zones, and payroll subsidies to small restaurants, retailers, bars and hotels — among other breaks.
8. Front-line Workers — Grocery store employees, nurses, bus drivers and other front-line workers who stayed on their jobs during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak will get a one-time $250 payment, provided they make less than $50,000 a year and worked at least 200 hours in an essential job during the stay-at-home order.
9. New Orleans — This one is a close call. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s tough stance against reopening the city sooner no doubt saved lives, but it put her at odds with conservative lawmakers who wanted the state to reopen quickly. Fortunately for the mayor, the city has a strong delegation that managed to salvage enough wins to put the city (barely) in the Winna category. Among those wins: the Sewerage & Water Board got millions in the Capital Outlay bill; NORD got $1 million; the port got millions for cranes and cold storage (but less than it sought and needed); City Park and Audubon Park got money; and Algiers got funds for a soccer stadium and skateboard park. On other fronts, the city lost key efforts to get money for other important initiatives. Worse, the long-term prognosis is not good because the new, more conservative Legislature is generally not sympathetic toward the city. Which brings us to …
1. Trial Lawyers — For the first time in memory, Louisiana’s plaintiff lawyers failed to kill all forms of tort reform. The handwriting was on the wall at the end of the regular session when lawmakers passed Sen. Kirk Talbot’s omnibus reform bill. Trial lawyers got lucky when a one-word, inadvertent flaw in Talbot’s bill gave the governor (an ally of trial lawyers) good reason to veto it. Edwards had negotiated the issue with LABI during both sessions, and he finally struck a deal on the last day of the special session. The compromise preserves some major pro-plaintiff litigation rules — for now — but it also sends a clear signal that trial lawyers no longer have the muscle to derail all tort reform efforts.
2. Governor Edwards — The governor began his second term at a disadvantage through no fault of his own. He got sidetracked by COVID (which he has handled exceedingly well) and the resulting economic slump, plus falling oil prices, after losing some major legislative allies to term limits and electoral defeat last year. In this environment, the office of governor has lost considerable political stroke. That reflects the political landscape — he’s a Democratic governor contending with a GOP legislative majority in a ruby-red state. This year’s two legislative sessions saw him cede power — not authority, but political power — that a Republican governor would not have had to give up. It was inevitable. What he has lost, what previous governors always had, is the political ability to reward his legislative allies. He still has the veto pen, but that merely allows him to punish enemies — and even there he cannot overplay his hand lest he trigger a potential override.
3. The Legislative Black Caucus — They had the high moral ground on several key issues, but not enough allies to prevail. Republican lawmakers watered down Sen. Cleo Fields’ police reform study resolution by omitting any reference to George Floyd — a slap that Black lawmakers will remember. On a related front, Rep. Edmond Jordan’s bill to end qualified immunity for abusive cops died in a House committee. One Pyrrhic victory for Jordan’s bill: Two freshmen Republican lawmakers — Reps. Richard Nelson of Mandeville and Thomas Pressly of Shreveport — voted for it in committee. That’s a hopeful sign. As Sam Cook sang decades ago, it’s been a long time coming … but a change is gonna come.
4. Teacher Unions — They lost big time. They failed to defeat Rep. Buddy Mincey’s immunity bill for schools and colleges; they didn’t get their hoped-for pay raises (because of COVID’s impact on the budget); and they’re not included in the list of “essential workers” who will get that one-time payment of $250. Without a governor who can roll over opposition for them, they are significantly weaker.
5. Far-Right Republican Lawmakers — An effort by the anti-masking krewe to overturn Edwards’ emergency COVID declaration went nowhere fast … except in the media. They didn’t even have the support of the GOP leadership, which squashed the idea within 24 hours.
6. State Workers — They will get no pay raises till October, and then only maybe, depending on whether funds are available. The silver lining, if there is one: Lawmakers set aside $60 million to pay for raises in an anticipated October special session. If things haven’t gotten worse by then, and if Congress provides more aid (as hoped), raises could be approved. Meanwhile, individual state agencies and the State Civil Service Commission have the authority to grant raises — but if they do, the agencies must cut their budgets elsewhere to fund the raises. And in October, more money may or may not be forthcoming.
Normally at this point I’d say let’s hope things get better by next year. Instead, it appears we’ll be looking at some sort of October surprise. Stay safe, folks.